How news organizations can keep mobile-first audiences engaged

byIngrid Cobben
Sep 29, 2016 in Miscellaneous

Mobile has become the No. 1 digital platform, but it's not so much news that is being consumed. However, news organizations urgently need to invest in mobile because it's the platform of choice for the next generation, according to Paula Poindexter, journalism professor at the University of Texas.

Consumers use their smartphones all the time, for everything; from listening to music to playing games to taking pictures and so forth. Competing with all these other functionalities, the news is a really low priority, Poindexter said: "An editor does not have the undivided attention of a consumer that he or she is trying to reach."

Despite the low interest for news, it is absolutely crucial for news organizations to invest in mobile, because that's where the largest living generation is, Poindexter says: "Smartphones are like an extension of their hand."

Her new book "News for a Mobile-First Consumer," which will be released shortly, is based on two national (U.S.) surveys, and identifies three types of mobile consumers: mobile-first consumers, who use their mobile device for everything; mobile specialists, who use their mobile device for a specific feature, such as social media (19 percent), internet search (18 percent), gaming (12 percent), entertainment (9 percent), news (8 percent) or eclectics (including others) (33 percent); and mobile laggards, who actually use their mobile device for communication, its original purpose. They are more likely to sit down and watch TV news at a set time, or read a print newspaper.

Mobile laggards are by far the largest group, yet the focus for news organisations should be on mobile-first users, according to Poindexter. Laggards often belong to the older generation, which will get smaller.

Mobile specialists seeking news are news junkies who will find a way to your publication anyway. But mobile-first users, even though it is a much smaller group at the moment, has been growing significantly in recent years, and that trend is not likely to change: these are the future consumers of news. 

Categorizing the types of users allows news organizations to recognize that not all mobile users are the same, to research them further, but also to adapt mobile storytelling accordingly. "You need to create several versions of any story because you're talking to different audiences," said Poindexter, who recommends giving users choices: read only the headlines, a summary, shorter or longer versions.

How to reach mobile-first users

Made up mostly of millennials, the mobile-first group has adopted mobile technology virtually overnight and now news organizations are playing catch up, Poindexter said.

"At a time where social media was reaching out to them, news organizations turned off millennials by mocking them, not including them in the coverage and stereotyping them," she said.

Feeling excluded is one of the reasons for millennials, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet, have disengaged, Poindexter said, comparing it to low engagement in the news from women and ethnic minorities.

They are significantly less likely to actively seek news than older generations; they're up to five times more likely to be on social media; and they're certainly not getting a digital subscription, because many think that news on the internet should be free.

"There was a bit of arrogance thinking that when the generation grows up they'll automatically subscribe to a newspaper, but that is not happening," Poindexter said. 

The challenge is to re-engage them and anticipate the generation that comes after them. Poindexter experimented by going mobile-first herself to experience it firsthand.

"Unless you transform yourself into someone who is only accessing the news on mobile are you really going to be able to understand it," she said.

Equally as important, news organizations must include millennials in their news coverage without reinforcing stereotypes and actively encourage them to engage with news. Poindexter and her millennial daughter set up a Facebook page with news curated from trusted sources about what millennials should know and what is of interest to them, or about them.

One of the things she found out is that millennials are paying much more attention to the news in election periods. "That would be a good opportunity to reach them, and make sure they are included in the coverage," she said.

Poindexter addresses several other ways to reach mobile-first consumers in her book.

Explaining news gathering, production to millennials

As the 2013-2014 president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Poindexter also engages in news literacy, explaining to the younger generation how news is produced and reported. She said it makes sense to go to the schools and to their parents to pass it on.

"You need to continually reaffirm the importance of being informed," she said.

This post originally appeared on the World Editors Forum blog and is republished on IJNet with permission. Ingrid Cobben is Media Editor at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Claudio Alvarado Solari.